Island school staff members in self-quarantine

School takes internal precautions and considers cancelling or postponing large events and trips.

Superintendent Matt D’Andrea gives an update to school officials on the developing coronavirus situation.

Four staff members at Island schools are under voluntary self-quarantine after returning from international travel, according to Superintendent Matt D’Andrea.

The Times had already confirmed that a student from the school is on self-quarantine. A Martha’s Vineyard Hospital doctor and teachers from both the Chilmark School and Martha’s Vineyard Public Charter School are also on self-quarantine.

D’Andrea wrote in a letter to parents that these staff members have not tested positive for the coronavirus and are not experiencing symptoms. They will head back to work 14 days after they returned to the country. 

At a school committee meeting Monday, D’Andrea suggested that the school continue to pay the staff during their two-week quarantine, and posed an important question to school officials — should they charge them for sick time?

Committee member Amy Houghton said she doesn’t see why the school wouldn’t charge sick time to staff that are in self-quarantine. 

“There is an argument that those folks who traveled over February vacation might have not known, but I do get concerned with moving forward and having an open checkbook to pay these folks,” Houghton said. “It could get a little dicey. If you have sick time, that’s what it’s there for.”

But D’Andrea said that these staff members are not technically sick, and noted the unprecedented situation that the school is dealing with. 

“None of this has been predicted or outlined. These staff members are self-quarantining because it is in the best interest of students and staff,” D’Andrea said. 

Staff at the high school get 15 sick days, six of which can be used as personal days.

Committee chair Kimberly Kirk said she knows someone who continued to work despite coming back from international travel, and tried to hide it for the fear of being charged sick time.

She said charging sick time in this situation could dissuade people from reporting any symptoms, or notifying the school of their return from an affected area of the world.

“I unfortunately know someone in that situation who did go to work and tried to hide it because they don’t want to be charged with sick time, it’s a delicate balance,” Kirk said. 

Houghton suggested an impact bargaining agreement in which the school could retroactively replenish sick days for the four people who are currently quarantined, should the school determine they won’t charge for sick time. 

School officials said they will charge sick time to staff who are self-quarantined, and decided to impact bargain with staff. If it is determined that they shouldn’t charge sick time at a later date, their sick banks will be replenished retroactively. 

D’Andrea said schools have been working closely with the local boards of health and school physician Dr. Jeffrey Zack to establish next steps and follow the protocol of the Massachusetts Department of Public Health (MassDPH) and the Centers for Disease Control (CDC).

“Whenever we have these situations where there is a public health crisis, we rely heavily on the MassDPH and the CDC; they really are the experts that provide us with guidance on how to move forward,” D’Andrea said.

School officials are meeting on a weekly basis, and D’Andrea said they will meet even more frequently if necessary. They are also considering a number of different scenarios the school could be confronted with, and what the most prudent reactions would be.

D’Andrea reminded folks of common-sense preventive actions like handwashing and sneezing or coughing into your arm, not your hand. 

Other public health precautions are also being considered in Island schools, including increasing space between students by separating desks, and avoiding large social events and gatherings.

“We are looking at large events like field trips, and thinking of possibly canceling or postponing those,” D’Andrea said.

The school has already canceled or postponed trips to the Model U.N. conference in New York City (though some students went on their own), the annual ski trip to New Hampshire, and a trip to Spain in April.

The school district has also stepped up its level of sanitation by cleaning “high-touch areas” such as desks, keyboards, doorknobs, and countertops, according to D’Andrea. On buses, the school has placed Lysol cans so that drivers can regularly sanitize seats and other surfaces. The school has also implemented mandatory handwashing, and has placed hand sanitizer stations throughout the building.

Facilities manager Mike Taus said at a separate facilities subcommittee meeting that the school is hiring an outside company that will be supplementing the duties of custodial staff to do vacuuming, floor mopping, and other regular tasks that would normally be handled in-house. The extra help will, according to Taus, allow for the school’s custodians to focus more on sanitation efforts.

Right now, D’Andrea said, the school is “in good shape” with supplies such as facemasks, tissues, soap, and hand sanitizer, although those products are “very hard to come by these days.”

Students who are at high risk are staying home, and the school is planning tutoring and individualized instruction at home for those students.

Absences are being tracked closely as the situation evolves, and nurses have identified spaces where students can be separated if they exhibit symptoms. 

D’Andrea also said there is a possibility of canceling or shortening school, should the situation worsen.

In accordance with advisories from the Department of Education (DOE), the school is not allowing remote instruction for students.

“If a school district cancels school, they want you to count that as if it was a snow day and add it to the end of the school year,” D’Andrea said. “However, we are, as a district, beginning to think about if that changes, and we do have a period of time in which school is closed, how we will deliver instruction and information to students.”

According to D’Andrea, the DOE does not approve of home instruction because there are many English Language Learner (ELL) students and Individualized Education Program (IEP) students that cannot attain access to the necessary support systems the school would normally provide.

“It is off the table,” D’Andrea said.

In a press conference Tuesday, Gov. Charlie Baker said that if schools are closed due to health concerns, or if students are required to self-quarantine, they will not be required to attend more than 185 days of school, or attend school past June 30, even if the number of absences or missed days exceeds that limit.

If schools are temporarily closed, D’Andrea said, free and reduced-cost lunch would still be provided to students, along with other support services.

The high school would be used as the central service location, and D’Andrea said the school is considering different ways to provide food for students, such as a drive-through service where students could pick up bagged lunches and avoid direct contact with others.